Winston Churchill once said of Russia that it was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Whether this was accurate or fair to Russia is not a topic for this blog, but Churchill’s quote could just as accurately be applied to the question of God. God as perceived by most monotheists is inherently paradoxical, and much religious language about God intentionally uses paradox to convey the mystery of God. God cannot be adequately described using language. However, the nature of language is such that if we have a name for something, we tend to assume that it can be contained and confined in a definition.
To guard against the danger that we might be tempted to think we can define or rationally understand God, each of the major monotheistic faiths has devised means to remind followers that God is ultimately beyond human apprehension. Jews are forbidden to speak the sacred Name of God.Note 1 Muslims are forbidden to attempt to create visual imagery of God, and one religious practice of Muslims is the recitation of the “99 most beautiful names of God”, some of which are mutually opposed. These practices are daily reminders to the faithful that the God they worship is beyond rational comprehension.
Christianity devised its own method to remind Christians of the mystery of God, but like so much else, many Christians, particularly in the West, succeeded in completely missing the point, and instead this method because a battleground of controversy and schism. This method was the concept of the Trinity.
First, a warning: the concept of the Trinity should in no way be taken as a description or a definition of the nature of God. Returning to my first point, God is a word that points us toward the mystery at the heart of existence, and ultimately cannot be described or defined.
The Trinity is paradoxical to our reasoning mind. The value it has is that it allows us to contemplate the essential unity of what are seemingly contradictory concepts about God. The Trinity refers to three aspects of God.Note 2 I describe them as:
- God the Source of Existence: This points to the meaning of God as creator of the universe, and to the underlying unity of creation. This is God that is essentially unreachable by human comprehension, reason, and senses. The best we can do with regard to this conception of God is to cultivate an awareness of the unity and existence of this Source.
- God that Speaks to Humanity: This points to the meaning of God that guides us. This is the God that speaks to the old Testament prophets, and which later Christians understand as the Christ.Note 3 This is God that humans can perceive, respond to, and cultivate a personal relationship with.
- God that Permeates all Existence: This points to the meaning of God whose power we find everywhere. Most cultures and religions have an awareness of this power, although their understandings of its source and meaning may vary wildly. In east Asia, it is called ki (or qi); in Sanskrit, it’s prana; in Polynesia, it is called mana; in western occultism, it is known as the astral light – just to name a few.Note 4 There are good reasons to think that these all refer to the same aspect of existence, and that they are the same as what is referred to in Hebrew as ruach, in ancient Greek as pneuma, in Latin as spiritus, and of course in English as spirit.
The traditional language for these three aspects of the divine are “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”, and also traditionally refers to these three aspects as three “persons”. This language may have once been useful in presenting the mystery that is pointed at by the concept of the Trinity, but it is now more of a stumbling block than anything else. The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes quite a few pages to attempting to explain the Trinity, and I think this attempt to explain captures perfectly how the concept of the Trinity has been misused. Attempting to rationally explain the Trinity is like attempting to rationally explain God; language fails because both are ultimately paradoxical.
My conception of the Trinity is that it is a concept that points us to a mystical reality that these three aspects of God (that I attempted to describe above, as much as language is able to describe these concepts) share some essential unity. Again, the Trinity is not a concept that should be subjected to attempts at rational analysis, because rational analysis is primarily concerned with dispelling the mystery, and thus misses the point. Instead, it is a concept that should be approached using the tools of mystical contemplation, and it allows us to approach and enter the mystery at the heart of our faith.
As with all language regarding God, words cannot adequately describe the reality. The words are just signposts pointing us toward the reality.
Note 1: Observing this restriction is helped by the fact that nobody actually knows how the Name is pronounced. It is written in Biblical Hebrew texts with the Hebrew letters that are (more or less) equivalent to YHWH, but Biblical Hebrew was written without vowels. Reading a text relied on being able to identify words in the context of the material being read and insert the correct vowels, but since the Name signified by YHWH was never spoken, who is to say how it should be pronounced. English translations usually translate the Name as Yahweh, which may or may not be correct and in any case is an excellent example of missing the point, which is all too common in the history of western Christianity.
Note 2: Just because the Trinity only refers to three aspects of God doesn’t mean there aren’t other aspects of God. Again, this is not a literal description.
Note 3: The question of whether this Christ is the same as the person of Jesus of Nazareth is a topic for a different post.
Note 4: It even makes an appearance in popular culture as “The Force” in the Star Wars movies. Quoting Obi-Wan’s description of the Force: “It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together”. It is worth remembering that the Star Wars movies are fantasies, so what the Force can do and what the Holy Spirit does are not the same thing, but the root concept appears remarkably similar.